Archive for Ocean’s 11

The Impossible Takes A Little Longer…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 3, 2019 by dcairns

…two hours and twenty-seven minutes in the case of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT.

I caught up with Christopher McQuarrie’s two MI films, a bit belatedly. The only thing I’d seen of his was THE USUAL SUSPECTS (THE USUALS, for short), which he wrote. And I dimly remembered that he had one of the two rival Alexander the Great biopics — evidently the wrong one got made.

This guy’s really skilled! He can move the camera to show what characters are thinking. His action is visually coherent, his blocking of normal dramatic scenes (there are a couple) is also dynamic and inventive. He steals from the best, with elan.

Of course, the exciting adventures of the International Monetary Fund Impossible Missions Force are still a step down from those of Alexander of Macedon, and I guess McQuarrie had to recalibrate his industry expectations during the twelve year gap between his directing debut and Tom Cruise giving him another chance with JACK REACHER. Cruise has spoken of wanting each film in this series to have it’s own distinctive director, though maybe that idea was born because Brian DePalma wa s such a grouch on the first film. McQuarrie has broken the mould by being asked back. The time might now be right for him to try something more serious because surely there are limits to what you can express through the medium of punching, kicking, shooting and chasing, in a glossy Bondian fantasy world? I know, it does sound like fun, and as far back as THE USUALS, McQuarrie ha s been inventing a kind of mythic world of unknowable, Mabusian supergeniuses…

The challenge DePalma faced with his entry was to turn a team-based TV show into a star vehicle for one guy, while keeping it nominally about a team. With the later entries, maybe the problem is how to make it feel like anything matters in a series where ludicrous shit is constantly being accomplished on the hoof.

Fiona, having watched Chernobyl, points out that you should never do this with a plutonium core.

“NOTHING in this film is real!” declared Fiona, midway through McQ’s 2nd MI joint. Not a complaint about the pervasive CGI jiggery-pokery (we know TC did enough of his own jumping to hurt one of his little legs, but the bike chase through Paris must have involved more head removals than the Thermidorian reaction — ironic, in a film where people keep swapping faces via those silly masks) but an admiring/exasperated response to the incessant narrative trickery. The “big store” cons so popular in the TV version haven’t been exploited this much in previous franchise entries, but they really go crazy with it here. But they don’t quite overdo it, even if the mission in this kind of hokum is to overdo everything in sight: unlike in OCEAN’S 11, where every moment of jeopardy was followed by a twist revealing that it was all part of the plan and everything was under control, which got monotonous and frustrating (you can, it seems, get TIRED of surprise).

Oh, and I like Rebecca Ferguson’s technique for fighting much bigger men: she climbs up them and hits them from above.

Millie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Paramount star George Raft visits Lewis Milestone and “General Pappy” on the set of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, in which GP has a featured role, though not the title part.

What this is, is a kind of biography-critical overview, to be expanded upon in a further piece on Milestone’s war pictures. Where I’ve written about a film more extensively in the past, I link through to it.

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Lewis Milestone was a pretty funny guy. There’s the famous exchange of telegrams when he was filming THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA on location on a real ship in bad weather with a cast including John Gilbert and some other serious drinkers. “HURRY UP THE COST IS STAGGERING” wired the producer. “SO IS THE CAST” replied Milestone.

Earlier, on ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, “Millie” replied to a request by studio boss Carl Laemmle (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very big faemmle”) to provide the film with a happy ending by offering to let the Germans win the war.

Late in his career, Milestone adventurously went into television, “to see how it works.” His verdict: “Slavery.”

I’m not actually sure that one is a joke.

He was born Lev Milstein in Russia. While in away in high school, he received money for his father for a Christmas trip home, and instead used it to go to America. He had an aunt in New York. When she was unable to help him, he wrote to his father optimistically asking for more money. The reply: “You are in the land of opportunity–use your own judgement.”

Milestone did odd jobs and enlisted in WWI, where his duties included gathering and photographing severed body parts. He also shared a unit with Frank Tuttle and Josef Von Sternberg.

Entering the movie business, he swept floors for Sennett and Ince and became an assistant editor, editor and assistant director to William Seiter. Seiter preferred playing golf to directing so Milestone had ample opportunity to study his craft.

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The ‘twenties: one important job was cutting WHERE THE NORTH BEGINS in 1923, the first major Rin Tin Tin movie. Huge amounts of location and dog footage was pouring in, from two units who were working from different scenarios. Milestone screened all the material for weeks and eventually cut the film like a documentary, building a story from the footage rather than fitting the shots into a story. The film was tested and went through the roof. All three Warner Bros congratulated Milestone for saving their investment. But when Lee Duncan, the dog trainer, was seen shaking hands with most of the audience as they left, they asked him what was up. “Well, this is my home town, so naturally a lot of these people know me.”

The film was re-tested further afield — and was an even bigger success.

After a row with Gloria Swanson, Milestone walked off FINE MANNERS and began work on THE KID BROTHER for his friend Harold Lloyd, but Warner Bros kicked up a stink about his contract violation and he was forced to quit that one after maybe only a few days. Somewhere in there he’s supposed to have contributed to TEMPEST too.

Milestone’s first big hit was TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS, or at least it’s the earliest one anyone remembers. Something of a carbon copy of Walsh’s WHAT PRICE GLORY? it made a star of smush-faced Louis Wolheim and made fine use of rising star William Boyd, before he became Hopalong Cassidy.

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Milestone directed THE RACKET for Howard Hughes but heard, when shooting was complete, that HH was recutting it. Furious, since he had legal right of final cut, Milestone confronted his boss, catching him in flagrante with the cutting copy and dragging him from the building. To calm his director down, Hughes got him into his limo and drove at terrifying speed until Milestone lost the edge of his rage and began instead to fear for his life. Then Hughes announced that the film was being released just as Milestone left it. Out of his own personal curiosity, he had wanted to see what would happen if he reduced each scene by ten per cent, so he had been tinkering just for the sake of it.

(An interesting insight into Hughes, who also took a projector to pieces to see how it worked, thus delaying a screening of rushes. Cutting everything by ten per cent is a very obsessive-compulsive trick to try. It’s also an amazingly uncreative approach to a creative job. Don’t try to make each scene work as well as it should. Don’t try to balance the length of the scenes to create a satisfying structure. Just take ten per cent out of everything. Boneheaded.)

Milestone’s first talkie, NEW YORK NIGHTS, is a gangster picture with an unconvincing gangster, John Wray, and the director thought it a disaster, trying unsuccessfully to take his name of it. Largely forgotten, it’s pretty interesting — Milestone shoots from a real car on real streets (rear projection hadn’t taken off yet), tracks energetically all over the place, and even puts the camera inside a dumb-waiter and rides it between floors.

RAIN is even more experimental, and THE FRONT PAGE, again made for Hughes, satisfied Milestone that a talkie could combine the qualities of a good stage play with cinematic values. But ALL QUIET is where he’s able to minimize dialogue for much of the picture and exploit purely audio-visual means. A tough, uncompromising film, a troubled shoot, and a colossal critical and commercial success, it became Milestone’s millstone — he grouched to the end of his days about the tendency of the ignorant to think of it as the only film he ever made.

The ‘thirties:  Milestone experiments zanily, restlessly. HALLELUJAH I’M A BUM is a jaw-dropper, and even a rather weak project like ANYTHING GOES has moments of visual energy, wit and imagination. THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is a Sternbergian melo with socialistic tendencies and baroque poetry-of-the-streets dialogue by Odets.

It doesn’t make any sense to blame Milestone for his inconsistent career — it’s full of false starts, aborted projects, and movies he walked off of rather than make intolerable compromises. But this sometimes paid off — when Hal Roach fired him from ROAD SHOW, Milestone sued, and as settlement, Roach agreed to finance OF MICE AND MEN, which became Milestone’s most acclaimed film of the decade. Milestone bagged the great reviews, Roach carried the can financially, and audiences stayed away. Justice! But the audience’s loss.

The ‘forties: an erratic period for Milestone, but I like a lot of the films nobody else including their director seems to care for — LUCKY PARTNERS, NO MINOR VICES. ARCH OF TRIUMPH was supposed to be the blockbuster, but the mob found it turgid. Milestone’s wartime output was geared to propaganda, and the skills used to make a pacifist point in ALL QUIET could be turned just as easily, it transpired, to stir the blood and encouraged enlistment. Some of these films are good, some are very problematic indeed, especially if one wants to see Milestone as an auteur. I’ll be talking about some of these films in more detail later.

Attempts to propose a consistent subject or theme for Milestone founder. Some have argued half-heartedly that he is obsessed with groups of men on missions, like Hawks or Ford, but this forces us to ignore most of his output. I have no trouble seeing him as a man interested in many things, and I don’t think that makes him less interesting than those filmmakers who pursued a more narrow range of subjects in their work. Are conversationalists who can only deal with one topic more interesting than those with eclectic tastes?

Milestone’s fluctuating view of war is a bigger issue, because one does want integrity in ones artists. I think the fact that he pursued a left-wing agenda and tried to smuggle in thoughts about group unity and responsibility does give his work the consistency we look for.

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As soon as the war was over, A WALK IN THE SUN took a more considered view of the conflict, and his sole noir, THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, partook freely of that post-war malaise everyone is always talking about with regards to this genre. The references to Van Heflin’s military service are brief, but pungent — nobody respects him for serving his country, not even the cops.

The ‘fifties: Milestone’s leftist connections brought him under the eye of HUAC — he was protected somewhat by Zanuck, the studio boss least hospitable to the blacklist, who sent him abroad to work. (Fox exec Raymond Griffith, the former silent comic, played his last acting role in ALL QUIET.) Fox had money tied up in Australia that they wanted to spend, so Milestone shot KANGAROO, the most faux-Australian film imaginable. Before the credits are over we’ve enjoyed the titular marsupial hopping all over the frame, koalas in trees, and then we repair to the office of a policeman, who promptly brushes the monitor lizards off his desktop to make room for his boomerang.

In England, Milestone shot THEY WHO DARE, a run-of-the-mill Technicolor war movie with Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Eliot stiffening their upper lips in Greece, and a rather interesting, unfaithful and truncated film of LES MISERABLES. “It had been done before. I hope it will never be done again.”

I haven’t been able to see Milestone’s Italian film, LA VEDOVA X (THE WIDOW) — if any reader has a copy, let me know.

The ‘sixties: Returning to the states, Milestone made a Korean was drama for Gregory Peck, PORK CHOP HILL, which Peck recut and subverted to add patriotism. Milestone walked away, straight into OCEAN’S 11, a big hit but an unhappy experience. I see Milestone in the figure of Akim Tamiroff in that film (an actor who had worked with Milestone several times before) — saggy, grumpy, melancholy, droll, tired, ignored or slighted by his rat pack collaborators. But he did deliver the coolest last shot in cinema history.

Milestone then sensed the chance to get rich with MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. The production had rumbled on for a year, Carol Reed had just walked off, and Milestone thought he could polish it off quickly. In fact, almost nothing had been shot, and Milestone was unable to accelerate the production, which was at the mercy of Marlon Brando. Brando didn’t take direction, and had his own set of signals to communicate with the cameraman, cutting the credited director out of the loop. Incidentally, I like the film a good deal.

The ‘seventies: Ill health kept Millie from working further. Somebody stole his two Oscars, which were only retrieved after his death. He spent ten years in a wheelchair.

Milestone on Hollywood: “A fear and psychosis pervades the town, engendered by the recent witch hunts on the national, state and community level. Producers are asking for and getting pictures without ideas. In the frantic effort to offend no one, to alienate no groups, to create no misgivings in Congressional minds, studios are for the most part obediently concentrating on vapidity. The public… did not not ask that pictures be sterilized of ideas; the notion was self-imposed.”

From Wikipedia: “Lewis Milestone’s final request before he died in 1980 was for Universal Studios to restore All Quiet on the Western Front to its original length. That request would eventually be granted nearly two decades later by Universal and other film preservation companies, and this restored version is what is widely seen today on television and home video.”

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Principle sources: Kevin Brownlow’s interview with Milestone. Philip Kemp’s profile in World Film Directors Vol 1. Richard T. Jameson’s piece in Richard Roud’s Cinema A Critical Dictionary (better than David Thomson’s book, fine though that is). And thanks to Phoebe Green!

Nautical But Nice

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2013 by dcairns

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THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA is a kind of Grand Hotel of the ocean waves. I was curious about it because Lewis Milestone’s early thirties work is so dynamic and experimental — RAIN, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and THE FRONT PAGE together give the lie to the popular idea that cinema got staid when sound came in. It undoubtedly did for some filmmakers, but Milestone seems to have been liberated by it. The challenge of moving the camera despite the demands of the microphone energized him, and a filmmaker who seems to have been fairly conventional (THE RACKET, TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) during the late silent era suddenly turned into a kind of crackly Scorsese. Or am I wrong?

Like Mamoulian, however, Milestone was quick to settle down into a more conventional approach — the explosive moments in his later films are commonly repeats of the highlights of ALL QUIET — all his subsequent war movies re-use the fast tracking shots along the trenches, for instance. But as late as OCEAN’S 11 he could still purvey moments of visual beauty — that film’s final shot is a breathtaking evocation of rat pack cool, making up for the not very inspiring 126 minutes preceding it. At any rate THE CAPTAIN is very elegantly shot, smoothly combining its location and studio material, but it isn’t a dazzling tour de force like RAIN. Nor does it aspire to be.

The titular captain is Walter Connolly in his best dyspeptic mode — he ran away to sea after dunking his dad’s beard in the soup. Now he’s tormented by his troublesome passengers, his inebriate chief steward (Leon Errol) and Donald Meek, whose long beard and careless posture over his broth presents a perennial temptation to repeat the sins of his youth.

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Also aboard is an all-star cast with John Gilbert at the top and the Three Stooges at the bottom. What Milestone has set out to do here, which was probably just as hard as inventing expressive sound cinema, is integrate the acting styles of Gilbert, Connolly, Victor McLaglan, Akim Tamiroff, Luis Alberni and the Stooges. He does it!

McLaglan is particularly impressive — not stifled, but holding back in key moments to create striking muted effects. He still does his patented Victor McLaglan face at times (co-star Helen Vinson matches it by putting the edges of he sharp little teeth together in a feral grin, lips sucked back — the pair of them look set to go for each other’s throats) but he avoids the mawkish grotesquerie that was so often his stock-in-trade.

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Gilbert’s performance should be studied by anyone tempted to believe he actually had anything wrong with his voice. Not only that, he should be studied by students of effective screen acting. In silents he was often callow. In QUEEN CHRISTINA he seems a touch hysterical. Here he’s solid, wryly humorous and he rivets the attention. His character is a washed-up alcoholic writer, supposedly taking a cruise to dry out. While discussing his new state of sobriety, he carries on soaking up the straight scotch (“Never bruise liquor!”) as before, a study in better living through denial. Since Gilbert had booze troubles of his own, the comedy (it’s all played for laughs) comes across more poignant than funny, but Gilbert seems to be aiming in that direction. There’s a melancholy to him that was probably inherent by this point in his life and career.